“Clarke marches and dances and stomps and skates (but never ever shuffles) all over the story. Don't even think about trying to put this musical novel down. Betty Baker Browning [is] the sweetest alter ego this side of Bedford Basin. Or in this life, oh sweet life.” — George Bowering
It’s been a decade since I & I came out. President Obama had just begun his Presidency, the worst wildfires in Australia's history killed at least 181 people in the state of Victoria, financier Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison, the US maximum, for conducting a massive Ponzi scheme, and Eminem inducted Run-DMC into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. What follows is an interview with the incomparable George Elliott Clarke, author of more than a dozen incredible books, winner of the Governor General's Award for poetry for his book Execution Poems (2001), and a member of the Order of Canada (2008) among numerous other noteworthy achievements. What follows is a brief interview about his 2009 book I & I.
I & I is 10 years old. How do you look back on it now?
I’m still amazed by — in love with — I & I. It is my third narrative-lyric work — after Whylah Falls (1990) and Execution Poems (2000). Though it did not win awards (unlike the previous narrative works), it got nominated for three (which is pretty impressive), and it remains that strange fusion of the funky and the lyrical. That is an unusual conjunction in Anglo-Canadian verse, even for black poets like Dionne Brand. I do think that I & I is spunky, spiky, dirty, sexy, grungy, and simultaneously romantic. It's a unique fusion, and I hope the benefits of it will emerge more clearly as time unfurls.
I & I is a novel in verse, a road-trip long poem if you will. You write very well in both prose and poetry — what made you decide to keep I & I in its lilting state rather than fettering it to prose and chapter breaks, etc.?
I was paying close attention to the New Brunswick master of the unrhymed couplet/ghazal — John Thompson as well as to the Confucian enthusiasms of Pain Not Bread (Borson, Maltman, and Patton) and their Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei. I did feel that the "novel" could work as a series of essentially unscrolled couplets, telling of character, place, and plot, while avoiding any clutter. See also Bernardine Evaristo's Lara.
Rusty on Goodreads writes: “If there is a spectrum between poetry and prose with poetry on one end being discrete pieces of words on varying themes and prose on the other end being novel length stories, George Elliott Clarke moves around on that spectrum more than any other writer I have encountered.”
I’m glad that Rusty's endorsed the book on Goodreads. I'm actually pretty chuffed that a bunch of verses and lines that I wrote in 1975-79, between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, that came about as a result of reading comic books and watching all-night horror-movie shows in Halifax, listening to funk and soul and Dylan and Joni M., reading blues lyrics and Tarantula and Kerouac all came together in a kind of automatic writing, some thirty-thirty-five years after the vast majority of the lines/images/verses had been inked down in Campfire notebooks and Hilroy scribblers. True: the book appeared when I was forty nine, but the original bits and pieces, nuts and bolts, were culled from the notebooks/scribblers that I kept as a lusty, dreamy, Manischewitz-drinking, Bruce Springsteen-besotted, "RimBaudelaire"-wannabe teen. No apology. To conjoin Parliament-Funkadelic LPs and Walcott's Omeros: That was the ticket . . .
Do you feel like genre is something people in general (readers, writers, publishers) get all fussy about? It does of course matter, categorically as an object (book) that is sold, but I find myself wandering between both continuously with much delight.
Genre is as genre does. . . . But to be overly generic is to be formulaic — is to be dull.
What are you excited about in 2019?
I can't believe that I & I is a decade old. I hope it will find new readers (and new critics for that matter). I'm very proud of it, and I look forward to fresh opportunities to recite this saga of Malcolm and Betty (shades of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz)!
Bonus: Clarke wrote a long poem in Dalhousie University: A 200th Anniversary Portrait:
Stop by again soon for another 101 class, and why not check out these other great offerings: